Why Birds Matter
by Denny Olson, Flathead Audubon Conservation Educator
They are Successful!
- Birds are found everywhere on the surface of our planet
- There are 10,500-plus species of birds
- They are incredibly diverse, from Bee Hummingbirds the weight of a paper clip, to 9-foot-tall Ostriches
- There is no Class of animals more widely distributed
- They have been here on this planet 150 million years longer than us
- They are the living descendants of the dinosaurs
The music we listen to would likely not even exist without birds. Complex pitch changes, harmony, inflection, consonants – perhaps even our language – evolved under the influence of bird “teachers”, who were far more accomplished in the world of sound and its meaning than we are today. Examples:
- Thrushes can sing four notes at once
- Until we slow most bird songs down, we don’t hear how incredibly complex the songs are
- Thrashers have over 300 songs in their language
- Chickadees have at least 30 different songs and calls, and communicate with other species miles away
- Jays, mockingbirds, crows and ravens can mimic most sounds (many others elsewhere)
There are an estimated ten quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) insects in the world, and they reproduce at mind-boggling speed. They eat almost everything – some eat each other. And, some are unfriendly to our interests. We humans are outnumbered about 300,000,000,000 to 1! Lucky for us, there are four hundred billion birds in the world, many of whom eat insects.
- Birds eat as many as 2000 insects each day.
- They save farmers trillions of dollars each year (keeping our food and drink prices way down!)
- They save entire forests, on a constant basis (preventing erosion, supplying timber and paper, and oxygen to our atmosphere)
- They greatly slow the spread of diseases.
- Birds eat 40% of all insects (spiders and bats help, too)
- They eat 98% of all tree budworms
- They eat 98% of codling moths (very destructive to agriculture)
- Birds distribute and plant (fertilizer-wrapped!) seeds for thousands of plant species
- Over 900 birds are plant pollinators (pollinating over 400 rainforest trees!)
- Since birds fly over every part of the planet, they distribute nutrients everywhere
- Many, many, many (tens of thousands?) plants are completely dependent on birds
- All animals on earth are completely dependent on plants, therefore on birds, for air quality, slowing soil erosion and most of our food.
- Scavenger birds like vultures, ravens, jays, eagles, chickadees and magpies are the primary early members of the cleanup crew.
- They are followed by tens of thousands of assistants whose clean-up work turns death into soil, which in turn is the starting place for new life
- Birdwatching contributes 88 billion dollars to our American economy every year
- Birdwatching taxes contribute 10 billion dollars to our government yearly
- Birdwatching recreation employs 670,000 people.
- Birdwatching is the fastest-growing outdoor recreation (30%/year)
Planet Health Check-up
When birds successfully raise chicks in their preferred environments, those places are probably healthy. Birds are sensitive to habitat alterations. Like the proverbial canaries in the coalmine, or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, they are often an early warning system for problems in our own life-support system.
- Eagles and Peregrine Falcons warned us about DDT
- Common Loons warned us about mercury in our water
- Passenger pigeons warned us about overhunting (unsuccessfully)
- Many species are now extinct due to human introductions of invasive species – especially on islands
- Migratory birds are now compressing (and shrinking) their breeding ranges due to a warming global climate
- On average, 144 species of birds go extinct every year
- The rate of bird extinctions is faster now than at any time since a huge asteroid struck the earth 65 million years ago
Birds have a “wow” factor beyond any other living things.
- Thousands of artists and musicians have used birds as their primary inspiration
- Birds come in an incredibly beautiful array of colors and shapes
- They fly! Jealous humans have tried to copy them for eons
- Godwits migrate over the Pacific Ocean non-stop for 7,200 miles
- Half-ounce Blackpoll Warblers fly over 2000 miles across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Venezuela non-stop
- Arctic terns have a 10,000-mile migration round trip
- Some swifts and albatrosses stay in the air — eating, drinking, courting, mating, and sleeping – for over a year
- Peregrine falcons fly up to 240 miles per hour, Golden eagles 200
- Hummingbirds fly backwards, upside-down and hover motionless
- Hummingbirds have heart rates of 1200 bpm, wings beating 100 times per second
- Even with this extreme metabolism, some hummers migrate 1500 miles
- Clark’s Nutcrackers bury up to 85,000 pine seeds per year, and retrieve 85% of them (the seeds they miss contribute 11 billion in economic value to forests)
- Ravens can visualize solutions to problems requiring six to eight steps [The others who can? Porpoises, Chimpanzees, and (some) humans.]
- Many birds can “see” colors outside our visual ability, and can sense magnetic fields during their migrations
- Birdwatching helps maintain good mental health, helps us learn faster, helps keep us physically healthy, and enriches our lives (it’s ecotherapy!)
- Birds symbolize freedom, strength, wisdom, spiritual connection, and bring sheer joy to people everywhere in the world.
Without birds, our lives would be infinitely poorer. In fact, it is likely that without birds and their incredible value to our world, we humans may never have evolved into who we are today. Have you thanked a bird today?